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Chairman Smith at Red Notice Event

Constitutional Impasse Continues in Belarus

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, on May 16, the alternative Presidential election concluded in Belarus within the timeframe envisioned by the legitimate 1994 Constitution. While the opposition Central Election Commission (CEC) concluded that the final results of the voting were invalid because of various violations deriving from the impediments placed by Belarusian authorities, the ballot served as an important barometer of democratic engagement by the citizens of Belarus.

In the months leading up to the election, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had imprisoned one of the two Presidential candidates, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, on what were clearly politically motivated charges, arrested hundreds of election officials and volunteers, and instituted administrative proceedings against others. Nevertheless, the authorities were unable to thwart the election in at least one critically important respect, according to the opposition CEC, the voting itself was valid because more than half, or 53 percent of the electorate, participated. When one considers that these were unsanctioned elections that challenged Lukashenka’s legitimacy, this is a substantial number of people.

No matter what the imperfections, Mr. Speaker, the opposition’s electoral initiative should send a powerful message to Lukashenka. Clearly, an appreciable number of Belarusian citizens are dissatisfied with the profoundly negative political and socio-economic fallout stemming from his dictatorial inclinations and misguided nostalgia for the Soviet past or some misty “Slavic Union.” The vote highlights the constitutional and political impasse created by Lukashenka’s illegitimate 1996 constitutional referendum, in which he extended his personal power, disbanded the duly elected 13th Supreme Soviet, and created a new legislature and constitutional court subservient to him.

Last month, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), which I chair, held a hearing on the situation in Belarus, with a view toward promoting human rights and democracy there. Testimony from the State Department, OSCE mission in Belarus, the Belarusian democratic opposition and several human rights NGOs all reaffirmed that Belarus is missing out on what one witness characterized as “the great market democratic revolution that is sweeping Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia” because of Lukashenka’s power grab and backsliding on human rights and democracy.

Despite repeated calls from the international community, including the Helsinki Commission, for Lukashenka to cease harassment of the opposition, NGO’s and the independent media; allow the opposition access to the electronic media; create the conditions for free and fair elections and strengthen the rule of law, we have failed to see progress in these areas. Indeed, we see more evidence of reversals. Earlier this year, for example, Lukashenka signed a decree which introduces extensive restrictions on non-governmental activity and mandates re-registration, by July 1, of political parties, NGOs and trade unions. The decree, which among other onerous stipulations requires that organizations acknowledge the results of Lukashenka’s illegitimate 1996 referendum, is clearly designed to destroy democratic civil society in Belarus and further consolidate Lukashenka’s repressive rule. Moreover, within the last few months, several disturbing incidents have occurred, among them the March arrests of Viktor Gonchar, Chairman of the opposition CEC, and the Chygir imprisonment, as well as the mysterious disappearances of Tamara Vinnikova, former chair of the National Bank of Belarus and, on May 10, Gen. Yuri Zakharenko, former Interior Minister and a leading opponent of Lukashenka. Just a few days ago, Lukashenka’s government announced that no more foreign priests will be allowed to serve in Belarus, making it extremely difficult for the Roman Catholic Church, which is rebuilding following the travails of the Soviet era, to function.

Mr. Speaker, I strongly urge the Belarusian Government to comply with its freely undertaken commitments under the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements and to immediately, without preconditions, convene a genuine dialog with the country’s democratic forces and with the long-suffering Belarusian people.

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